Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Kids as makers

The Maker Movement isn't brand new. But if you're only just hearing about it, you're not alone. These kinds of trends and movements take time to gain traction, which means they've begun to gain credibility.

If you're not familiar with the Maker Movement, let me offer a very short primer. The Maker Movement, in my opinion, harkens to an earlier time when necessity really was the mother of invention. Keep in mind the first individual to say this might have been Plato The Republic, Book II in approximately 360 BCE. My point is that the thinking isn't new. What is different about today's Make Movement is that invention isn't necessarily because of necessity, but often because of "what if" thinking, which is, in my opinion, even more interesting and exciting.

For those who have been in education for a bit of time, you are familiar with constructivism. Maker culture is constructivism writ larger; it emphasizes the value and importance of learning through doing. It's project-based learning, and more.

The genesis of the maker culture is deeply rooted in technology. Hackers, who are not always bad guys, by the way, are informally networked and share their learning, skills, and cool tools. They explore for the sake of exploration: "what if?" thinking is the norm for them. They explore different ways of working and doing, plowing through or tearing down walls that provide potentially artificial constraints of interaction and interplay.

Earlier this year there was a first-person article explaining the value of the Maker Movement. Mr. Bajarin (@bajarin) quoted an Adweek definition, which suggests the concept is already moving mainstream.
The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.
 After attending a Maker Faire, Mr. Bajarin wrote
The result is that more and more people create products instead of only consuming them, and it’s my view that moving people from being only consumers to creators is critical to America’s future. At the very least, some of these folks will discover life long hobbies, but many of them could eventually use their tools and creativity to start businesses. And it would not surprise me if the next major inventor or tech leader was a product of the Maker Movement.
So the Maker Faire is what exactly? Well, you've made stuff and now you want to share it with others. Sure, you could go to your local craft fair and maybe get a few people to come to your booth. But as the Maker Faire folks describe it, the Faire is the biggest "show and tell" on Earth. What's more important, if not most important, is that the Maker Faire encourages "innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft."

It's fairly new (2005) but it's not local.

Why does this matter for education? Well, it's a natural step for those who are already implementing project-based learning because PBL invites, if not expects, students to work cross-curricularly. Perhaps they're working on a history project, but they will include, at the very least, science, math, literature, and media of all kinds.

But why does it matter for learning? Because all along we tell kids that they need to learn stuff like algebra and science and how to write and how to argue and more because they'll need it "some day." Pffft. That's too ambiguous and too far away. If they're working on a project, they'll end up drawing on knowledge from various content areas and having to research in various content areas without differentiating that now they're doing math, and now they're doing social studies, and now they're doing English because they're writing or reading. More significantly, the learning is not "some day," but right now.

Why else does it matter for learning? Because the skills they develop, and the occasional thrill they might experience through discovery and experimentation, will be useful throughout their lives. . .in school, in work, in their day-to-day lives. And they begin to experience that learning is not compartmentalized after all but often a jumble of interactions and intersections.

What prompted this is a tweet: "When kids making thing to be seen by other kids they want to be good, when just for teacher just good enough." I don't know the originator of that statement and it doesn't really matter. I don't think it's completely true. Yes, when kids are making things to be seen by their peers, they may work harder. If they respect their peers. But if they respect their teacher and if their teacher is a good coach and learning facilitator, they'll work hard to produce something that will be excellent. And not just because they want a good grade but because they want the approval of the teacher. Ideally kids would learn to make stuff to please themselves and because it satisfies a curiosity itch.

Setting aside the concerns about assessment (as if we could really do that), what's the most important is encouraging kids to be makers. Not necessarily on same grand Maker Faire scale, but developing the skills need to be makers through creative problem solving and because they wondered "what if?".

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Contemplating teacher education, Part III (finito, for now)

In Part I I talked about being a teacher, my own challenges in becoming an educator of some quality and with some reflection on teacher education. The upshot is my belief that professional development or growth or learning or whatever you want to call it NEVER stops. And that's true for K-12 educators (teachers and administrators) as well as higher education faculty and administrators. NEVER stops.

In Part II I talked about pre-service or teacher education. Grousing about teacher education is not a new sport. Teachers, administrators, parents, and armchair educators (aka politicians, who are often also parents, I get that) love to take potshots at teacher education, among other things, but we'll stay focused on teacher education just now.

 Last week the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published its report on, well, teacher quality. Most folks will go directly to the Overall Findings, but you should start with the Executive Summary as that will give you some insight into the process of the research. The "how" is often as important as the "why" or the "what" because of that process insight.

There were a number of reports on the report, some of those with more titillating titles than others (yes, I'm tawkin' to you Huffington Post). US News & World Report soberly points out that "Teachers need to be at their best, so they can bring the best out in their students. But most teacher preparation programs don't equip new educators with the tools they need to make that happen."

Diverse Education reports that NCTQ "evaluates the core components of teacher education," reporting on 836 higher education institutions this year as opposed to the 608 evaluated last year. Critics suggest the process of the evaluations is somewhat flawed, but then people think the same of the the US News & World Report publications on best this or that in education. So, yes, as any psychometrician and researcher would tell you Mr. President, contemplating some sort of ranking system for higher education, process does matter. Just sayin.'

And finally, CBS News reports:
The NCTC [sic] highlighted what it sees as particularly encouraging developments:
-- 33 states have recently made significant changes in their accountability policies for teacher preparation programs and seven more have taken steps forward
-- A new consortium of seven states organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is working to beef up program approval standards
-- The Obama Administration has signaled it intends to strengthen accountability steps for teacher preparation and that it will earmark millions of dollars in federal grants to only high-performing programs
-- A new professional organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), is beginning to accredit programs using much stricter standards
Blah, blah, blah.

Let's go back to two earlier statements: 1) that pre-service teachers aren't equipped with the tools they need to make quality education happen; and 2) the core components of teacher education. Hmm. So, is there any agreement on those core components of teacher education? Is there any reality check that those are, in fact, in the classroom on a day-to-day basis the best and most practical of the core components for preparing pre-service teachers to be at their best so they have the tools to provide students a pathway to a quality education? How do we know that if we can't even agree on what makes a quality education?

Don't misunderstand. I do think that many teacher education programs need to rethink how they prepare teachers for the classroom. Some of what NCTQ indicates as encouraging seems to me to be rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Accountability steps and stricter standards sound great. But preparing classroom teachers isn't just about the teacher education department. Every university faculty who has education majors in the classroom has a responsibility, even if an indirect one, of preparing future teachers. We often teach the way we were taught, so every professor models teaching and assessment, and maybe even facilitation and coaching. Every professor.

Programs that have substantial practicum hours are often on the right track, in my opinion. Exposure to the classroom makes sense. That's why physicians have residencies and rotations in different areas. That's why medical students go on rounds with doctors. They have to be part of what it really means to be a doctor to become a doctor. And many of the doctors with whom they do rounds and for whom they work in their residencies are teaching doctors in that they teach classes but they also practice medicine which means they too are in the trenches of medicine; that means they have real-time, job-embedded, current practical experience in their fields.

I wonder how many higher education faculty say they have real-time, job-embedded, current practical experience in the K-12 classroom.

Educators want to be treated as professionals. But the whole system of preparing educators suggests it can be done reasonably in a four-year program. Those who want to practice medicine and law have to get additional education to be prepared to practice their professions. Those who want to be professional psychologists have to go to graduate school. The list of those who must go to graduate school to be taken seriously in their professions goes on and on. And yet we think four years of undergraduate school is sufficient for pre-service teachers to be sufficiently equipped. We think some number of practicum hours including one semester of student teaching is sufficient for pre-service students to have they tools they need. School districts don't like to hire teachers with little experience and Master's degrees because they have to pay more because of the graduate degree, and there's no proof that students are any better or any more knowledgeable as a result of that graduate degree.

NCTQ may say that some teacher education programs are better than others and, no doubt, many of them produce excellent teachers and do so with the constraints of a four-year program. I know it's possible. And part of that is the dedication of the teacher education faculty, including their own forays into the K-12 classrooms and working closely with school districts to stay close to the realities of those classrooms. And part of that is more accountability in admitting only the best of the best into their teacher education programs, and then supervising them to excellence.

In the end, I don't think there's an easy answer. Should teacher education require another year or two like law school or medical school? Should there be agreement among universities and K-12 administrators on the core components of teacher education? Should higher education faculty be required to spend some amount of time in K-12 classrooms, even if only to observe, to make sure they really understand what's happening in those classrooms?

Years ago I organized a small symposium with some area middle and high school administrators and teachers because my freshman English writing faculty was complaining about the quality of writing abilities in our students. Mind you, we were not a top tier college and lots of our kids were first generation students. But it was obvious there was a disconnect and some assumption that those middle and high school English teachers were slacking and just not doing their jobs. The symposium was an eye-opening experience. For both sides. Middle and high school English teachers had no idea of the expectations college faculty had in freshman English and why students might end up in the dreaded "0" courses (ENG 098, 099) that gained them no credit towards graduation. And college faculty had no idea of some of the challenges middle and high school English teachers faced, regardless of the school district.

We didn't change our expectations of incoming freshmen. We couldn't because we had to make sure they would have a chance to succeed in other classes. But just having the conversation made the college faculty more understanding of some of the capabilities of some of the students, and we worked harder to find ways to help them.

I did hear from some of the middle and high school English teachers who told me they were going to redirect some of their professional learning (or growth or development) so they would have better instructional skills and practices and more options for learning experiences for their students.

So here's the bottom line, especially for those of you who thought I might be advocating for more years of school for teachers or who thought I was demeaning four-year programs: equipping teachers to be and become quality teachers is a career-long experience. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know that, at best, they have a handful of strategies and practices that will help them keep their heads above water that first year of teaching. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know they will be exhausted well before the school year ends. The most excellent of those brand new teachers know they have much to learn and are eager to learn it. The most excellent teachers have formed relationships with others in their disciplines and in teacher education so they have a support group, and often members of that group are not at their school or even in their district. The most excellent teachers have at least one veteran educator who is a mentor who is supportive, yet objective, and encourages that teacher to continue to learn about this craft and art of teaching.

Go ahead and increase accountability and improve standards in teacher education programs (and make sure higher education faculty are required to spend significant observational time in actual K-12 classrooms). Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But don't ever think that graduation day is the end of teacher education. It is, in fact, only the beginning.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Contemplating teacher education, Part II

Student teachers. Pre-service teachers. Men and women who intend to go to a university to become a teacher. Most of our future teachers are going to go to a more local university, probably one of their state schools. For the sake of this part of the discussion, though, we'll take a look at some of the best teacher education programs in the United States:
You can examine the requirements of just about any teacher education program for methods courses, a certain number of hours for content area, etc. What will vary is the number of practicums and how the practicums are implemented. What will also vary is the number of years since college faculty were in K-12 classrooms. I don't mean since they taught in a K-12 classroom, but how long it's been since they visited a K-12 classroom for any length of time. Or how long it's been since they spent at least a few hours visiting a K-12 school.

Just standing in the halls listening to the kids talk or watching how teachers manage their students. Or sitting in the lunchroom to observe how students interact, how teachers and students interact. Or just sitting in the back of the room to watch and listen to kids, to watch and listen to the teacher and the kids: no notes, no formal observation. Just watching and listening. And learning.

Then thinking about the realities of the classroom and the implications for what might be being taught in the teacher education program. And then thinking about how to implement any changes that might better prepare pre-service teachers for the real classroom.

I don't mean throwing away textbooks or lesson plans, but inviting students to comment on and make recommendations for using their learning based on what they have observed in their practicums and what they are learning about themselves as future teachers. They need to be discovering what kinds of teachers they think they will be.

They need to be watching video of outstanding, excellent, good, and reasonably okay teachers to discuss what's working, what's not working, what they think they'd do differently and why, what they think they couldn't pull off and why. (Ask about me about the SMART educator cooperative.)

We talk about supervising and cooperating teachers when we make pre-service teacher placements in a school. Both of those roles offer written feedback of a pre-service teacher's work. While it would require more time, why not have a 30-minute meeting (face-to-face, Google Hangout, Skype) to talk through the feedback, to allow the pre-service teacher opportunity to ask questions, and to enable both the supervising and cooperating teachers to coach. I know that many of the challenges for pre-service teachers arise when the supervising teacher doesn't think too much of the cooperating teacher, or vice versa, so the message about the pre-service teacher's learning and professional growth gets muddled if not lost.

Pre-service teachers need to learn about teaching. They need to learn their content areas. They need to learn how to teach their content areas. They need to learn what they do well and what they need to work on, just as their students will need to learn what they do well and what they need to work on. Every instance of interaction with an educator--supervising, cooperating, or otherwise--is an opportunity for that pre-service teacher to learn about her craft and her profession as well as to learn about his own skills, knowledge, abilities, and shortcomings in that craft and profession. Every instance of interaction with an educator is an opportunity to learn and to be coached.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Contemplating teacher education, Part I

What does it mean to educate a teacher? What does it mean to prepare an individual to be excellent in the classroom?

Years and years ago I was invited to teach a programming class. I'd been a computer programmer for quite some time and leaped at the chance. I thought it would be fun. I read the book. I made notes. I put together a lesson plan as best as I knew how because I really had no clue what I was doing.

My first night as a teacher I was terrible. Terrible. The students hung with me, though, and eventually I figured out I'd started at far too high a level for them. I had to remember what it was like to know nothing about the subject. I had to remember what it was like to hear words that were a sort of foreign language and not only learn the words, but figure out what they meant and how they went together.
I went home and started over again. But I knew nothing about assessment strategies, classroom management strategies, or any of that. Fortunately I was teaching a college class and the students were well-behaved. They were a great first group for me and I'm indebted to them for their patience, for teaching me what kind of a teacher I could be. I was lucky.

Years later I had a graduate assistantship. There were several other graduate students in a large classroom that was our "office." Most of them were earnest English majors who took assistantships to pay for graduate school. Many of them intended to teach once they had their doctorates (and I sometimes wonder how many made it to the professoriate) but it rarely seemed to occur to them that this opportunity as a mentored graduate assistant was a remarkable opportunity to learn how to teach. We had sessions during which we talked about creating assignments and grading papers; we discussed managing students in our general education and generally disliked freshman composition courses. And yet far too many of those earnest English majors took these lessons to heart, which puzzles me still. Why not learn about one's craft as well as one's content area? Why despise, and with such obvious condescension, that opportunity to learn?

Some time after that I think about teacher education programs. I was privileged to work with a number of teacher education faculty who were dedicated to making sure their pre-service teachers were as prepared for the classroom as possible. Yet, there is only so much one can do in a four-year program that requires education in the content area(s) as well as in the profession. I've been a reviewer for NCATE and hope to be for CAEP. I've seen teacher education programs with impressive goals and intentions, and worried the reach of the designers exceeded their grasp, that the program design was more hoped for than practical.

In the average liberal arts school, a specific number of hours are dedicated to a student's liberal arts education with the required general education classes. Some teacher education programs require students to declare their major in their freshman year--no messing around. Those programs have students in a practicum in the second semester of that freshman year: visiting and observing classrooms, making notes of what they see and hear. Why? Practical exposure and an opportunity to put some reality to the idealistic notions many have of teaching.

By their sophomore year, those education majors may have completed up to three observational practica. Perhaps different teachers at different schools. The question that looms large for me is what and how students are expected to learn from those practica experiences? That's a question I'll pursue in another post.

As we think about what it means to educate a teacher, we need to think about why we are educating that teacher. Sure, we hope the pre-service teacher will learn strategies for classroom management, assessment, and more. We want the pre-service teacher to learn how to design lesson plans, and we hope the pre-service teacher will develop a rich toolbox of strategies and resources.

We hope pre-service teachers learn to how to observe good teaching and to learn from teaching that might not be quite as excellent. We hope pre-service teachers learn how to observe a good activity or assessment and figure out how to make it his or her own, and appropriate for his or her students.

We hope pre-service teachers learn that much of what they see in a really good classroom is part planning, part theater, and part improv, and that the better they know themselves as educators and the better they know their content and the quicker they learn about their students, the better they will be as teachers.

I hope we also hope that pre-service teachers learn that their development as teachers doesn't ever stop. Doesn't. EVER. Stop.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Student" vs "learner": Any difference?

My friend and colleague Ginger Lewman (@gingerlewman) hosted #teacheredchat on Twitter the other day. We got into a bit of a side conversation about the differences between "student" and "learner." Ginger suggested a differentiator might be that students are more concerned about grades.

My initial reaction was that any differences between the two might be splitting hairs. I still think that might be true, but opted to give it further consideration because it intrigued me that some might think a student and a learner are not the same. I believe we have imposed our own distinctions on these words.

So off to my friend the OED; yes, I'm a dictionary snob. Let's start with student: first used in 1398, the word "student" refers to "a person who is engaged in or addicted to study." A second definition, first used around 1430 is "a person who is undergoing a course of study and instruction at a university or other place of higher education or technical training." And first used around 1900, "a scholar at an institute of primary or secondary education."

Learner is an older word, possibly first used by Bede around 900 in his Ecclesiastical History, and meaning "one who learns or receives instruction; a disciple. In early use, a scholar, man of learning." There is another more contemporary definition first used around 1936: "one who is learning to be competent but who does not yet have formal authorization as a driver of a motor vehicle, cycle, etc." Interesting.

Well, the distinctions I made were not nearly as elegant nor scholarly. I said I thought learner was a more general term in that it might be used to describe someone who enjoyed learning whereas student indicates someone who is focused on something specific; someone who is, for example, a student of martial arts or Impressionism. But then that would make my learner more like a dilettante (first used around 1733 and refers to "a lover of the fine arts; originally, one who cultivates them for the love of them rather than professionally, and so = amateur as opposed to professional; but in later use generally applied more or less depreciatively to one who interests himself in art or science merely as a pastime and without serious aim or study" [emphasis mine]).

In the end, it really doesn't matter how the OED or any other dictionary defines the words. In the end, what really matters is how we use the words and how our kiddos understand the words. If we believe that a student is one who is more interested in grades and that a learner is more interested in the learning, then our kids are likely to accept and adopt those distinctions.

I think we do students and learners a disservice to apply those markers. Some of our kids are grade-chasers, but that's because somewhere along the line they've learned to believe that grades are more important than learning. I think of the related words, such as studious and our understanding and use of that word and how it can contextualize how we think of a student.

I think of lessons I tried to teach my writing students not only about the value of words, but the depth of words--that some words are more neutral than others whereas others carry positive or negative value, not just because of their connotation but because of their denotation.

Perhaps my friend Ginger is right--today's students are those who are interested in grades whereas learners are those who are interested in learning. I hope not.

I hope we have students who are learners and learners who are students and that our educators are working diligently to instill in them a love of learning; even, yes, a love of study. Because how do we get better at anything we do, regardless of our fields or our passions? We study it and we learn it. The two, I believe, are complementary. I hope that becomes more true in practice.